Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Month of Entertainment – April 2007

Find previous My Month’s here.

Oh, what a month it was. I got so much (mostly cheap) music this month, I didn’t know what to do with myself. For one thing, eMusic mysteriously gave me 50 extra downloads. And it wasn’t even my birthday! For another, Teenage Kicks co-proprietor Michael Atchison pointed me toward some of his site’s favorite music from 2006 with a “Teenage Kicks Care Package”. And for another, I bought a lot of music.


Who needs books when you’re getting this much music?


Smallville, Seasons 1-5 – The Butterfly’s wedding anniversary present. Some women want jewelry, some want DVDs. I married the right girl.

(And yes, I’ve gotten sucked into the show too. It’s pretty solid. The unique casting, the dynamics between Clark and Lex, and the inspired casting of Lois Lane—introduced in Season 4—as much trampier than in the movies...all of these lead to a solid show with plenty of plotlines to carry over a 6-8 season period.)

(Oh, and I got a new watch for our anniversary. Just in case you wondered.)

Empire Records – A cheap buy at Best Buy. The Butterfly revealed that she had never seen this, so I had to pick it up. Solid, harmless movie featuring a young Renee Zellweger, a really young Liv Tyler, and an almost-but-not-quite-to-the-age-where-the-only-option-is-a-CBS-crime-drama Anthony LaPaglia. The fact that this movie is 12 years old makes me feel a bit old.

This month’s Netflix rentals:

Superman Returns – The Butterfly’s recent obsession with Smallville caused this to get bumped to the top of the Netflix queue. Like most action movies nowadays, it’s about 30 minutes too long, but the never-ending quality isn’t quite as noticeable here as in Casino Royale. We both ended up liking Smallville’s casting more than SR’s, but everybody does a capable job...and Kevin Spacey is quite good as Lex Luthor. You can tell he enjoyed himself.

Volver – This movie came highly-recommended by berlin niebuhr and Mrs. N (of course, they also highly recommend movies such as Emma and You’ve Got Mail, so that recommendation alone didn’t make me think I’d love this movie), and this was one of our better Netflix rentals in a while. The entire package in this movie—cast, writing, plotline, direction—works brilliantly. And Penelope Cruz is much hotter with an extra 10-15 pounds on her.

The Departed – I expected to enjoy this movie—I enjoy most (but not all) Best Picture winners—but I must say...I liked this more than I thought I would. Near the beginning of the movie, my mind started locating the people I thought would live and the people I thought would die...and I pretty much got them all wrong. I love that.

Accepted – I figured we needed to balance out The Departed with, shall we say, a slightly less involved movie. Accepted fit the bill. It's a nice, stupid college comedy that doesn’t try to be more than it is. Justin Long (a.k.a. the “I’m a Mac” guy) carries this movie with confidence and ease, which is impressive considering he’d been basically a bit character (weird kid in Ed, kid who gets hit with a wrench in Dodgeball) in most of his roles, and really all a movie like this needs is for the main character to pull everything together. I would honestly call this a worthy rental despite its residence in the “Stupid College Movie” category.


I got so much music this month that I think I’ll make a Top Ten Gets of April list.

1. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black. I really didn’t want to like this album—like I’ve said before, I’m unimpressed with the ‘out-of-control-drunk’ persona that some of Winehouse’s performances have earned her. But if the music’s good enough, it just doesn’t matter. And the music here is beyond good enough. My recent Best of 2007 (so far) list had both “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” in the Top 5, and just about every other song on the album earns Honorable Mention status. If Barry Gordy, Diana Ross, etc. were transported from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘00s, this would be the sound they produced. You hear old school Motown all throughout Back to Black, but the sound maintains originality due to Winhouse’s lyrics and vocals, and the genre-bending involved. Just a fantastic album.

2. Brother Ali, The Undisputed Truth. I was so excited to get my hands on this (well, my metaphorical hands, since I bought it on iTunes), and that excitement usually leads to a letdown. I will say that the initial single (“Truth Is”) is the best song on the album, which is usually a bad sign, but everything’s good. His natural skill, emotion, and charisma make the album worthwhile. You want truth and reality and real-life topics—instead of women and jewelry—in your hip hop? Then this is the best hip hop album in about 2 years. If hip hop is in its hair metal stage, then consider Brother Ali the hip hop Fugazi, creating real music in a genre getting more and more fake.

3. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain. I was perusing eMusic to see how I would spend my unforeseen 50 bonus downloads, and I came across this album. Somehow, despite my love for Roots-era Curtis Mayfield and Songs in the Key of Life-era Stevie, and despite having worn out my copy of The Best of Parliament, I’d really never dabbled in Funkadelic territory. After listening to Maggot Brain, I feel pretty silly about that. I love genre-bending—it’s one of my favorite things about Bob Dylan and Sly & the Family Stone and Ozomatli and M. Ward and Ben Harper and 50 other bands—and few bands bend more genres into one sound than Funkadelic does on this album. Here’s some R&’s some’s some hard’s some psychedelic rock...great stuff.

4. Ozomatli, Live at the Filmore. Ozo has been one of my favorite bands for quite a while, and their live shows are some of the best I’ve ever seen. So how it took me 2 years to pick up their live album, I have absolutely no idea. Pretty unfathomable, really. I went ahead and downloaded it with their new release, Don’t Mess With the Dragon, and it was every bit as good as I figured it would be. Just as I’m almost ashamed that I hadn’t dabbled in Funkadelic before now, I’m ashamed of this too. I hate myself! Okay, not really.

5. Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions. For whatever reason, I hadn’t pulled the trigger on getting this one yet, but hearing “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times” on the Teenage Kicks Care Package gave me a Bruce booster shot, and I went for it. Now, like with #3 and #4, I feel silly for not having bought this months ago. I love gospel-style backing vocals, I love the looseness, I love the let-your-hair-down-and-belt-it-out quality of Bruce’s vocals...I’ve never been a huge fan of Pete Seeger’s lyrics (almost too ‘cheesy folk’ for me), but Bruce a) made some great selections from the Seeger catalog and b) performed the crap out of the selections. Songs like “Jacob’s Ladder” (and the accompanying video) and “John Henry” are the definition of ‘joyous’. Great album.

6. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. If you need definitive proof of what a great month April was for me, realize that this album fell all the way to 6th, and I loved this album. I liked Johnny Marr’s contribution here. With the press that his joining MM received, you’d think that MM had turned into the Isaac and Johnny Band, but Marr’s not a guitarist who demands the spotlight. He doesn’t turn MM into a new band, he just makes good songs better.

7. Hugh Masekela Presents the CHISA Years: 1965-1975 (Rare & Unreleased). Michael of Teenage Kicks recommended this album upon seeing how much I liked Afro-Rock Vol. 1 last month. I didn’t disappoint. Like most collections, there are hits and misses, but there are just so many good grooves and basslines here that it’s worth sifting through the misses.

8. Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor. Listening to Brother Ali’s new album got me in a hip hop mood (as #8-10 will show), and I went out searching for good hip hop. It’s getting harder and harder to find it, but it’s out there. I finally sucked it up and tried this album out...and the risk paid off. Lupe passes all of my tests—interesting beats, interesting subject matter, originality—and while there’s no one song that hits me as hard as Ali’s “Truth Is”, this is a pleasant listen throughout...despite the less-than-impressive album title.

9. J Dilla, Donuts. J Dilla, a very popular producer for the likes of Common et al (in other words, producer for rappers I love), died of lupus last year, and this album, a large selection of 1- or 2-minute cuts, has been regarded as his masterpiece. I was afraid of it. Why? Because I’ve never been a huge fan of DJ-only hip hop, and I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy this as much as a true hip hop fan should. Now that I own it? I’m still not sure what to think. It's good, but I'm still not sure how good. I’ll get back to you on that one.

10. Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 1. Immortal Technique has long been considered one of the best underground rappers around. His songs are great but hard to listen to. Think The Wire set to music. His songs are political, gritty, and heartbreaking, and they leave you a bit shaken, particularly the 9-minute epic, “Dance with the Devil.” I also downloaded his Mos Def collaboration, “Bin Laden”. Let’s just say that Immortal Technique isn’t too adept at beating around the bush.

“Look at their mansions, then look at the conditions you live in/All they talk about is terrorism on television/They tell you to listen, but they don't really tell you their mission/They funded Al-Qaeda, and now they blame the Muslim religion/Even though bin Laden, was a CIA tactician/They gave him billions of dollars, and they funded his purpose/Fahrenheit 9/11, that's just scratchin' the surface.”
You should read all the lyrics or watch the video here. Seriously...I’m worried that I got put on a Homeland Security watch list just for downloading the song. It’s ruthless.

Other April Gets:

Ozomatli, Don't Mess with the Dragon. I love Ozo to death, but the Spin Magazine review put it best. This album sounds like they took a Black Eyed Peas turn—tired of making good music that radio wouldn’t play, they decided to dumb things down a bit to actually make some money and stick around in the business a while. I really can’t blame them—they’ve been doing this for a while, they’ve gotten minimal radio play, and they have more damn members in their band than P-Funk, so they probably need to make a little money at some point if they want to continue doing this. That said, it’s not my favorite album of theirs by any means. If you’re new to Ozo, start with Live at the Filmore and Street Signs.

Josh Rouse, 1972. I’d been debating buying this album for about three years now, and when I heard a couple Rouse songs on the Teen Kicks Care Package, I went ahead and pulled the trigger. (Are you noticing that April 2007 turned out to be “The Boy Finally Sucks It Up and Buys It” month? Me too.) What do I think of it? Eh. Not bad, not wonderful. "Comeback (Light Therapy)" is very good..."Love Vibration" is fun...everything's decent, but there's not one blow-me-away tune.

Afrobeat... No Go Die!. Since I enjoyed Afro-Rock Vol. 1, I figured a) I would enjoy a follow-up enough to justify spending precious downloads on it, and b) it wouldn’t quite be as good as the first. I was right on both accounts. Everything I liked about Afro-Rock Vol. 1, I liked about Afrobeat, only in smaller quantities.

J Dilla, Ruff Draft. A drastic departure from the J Dilla product listed above. This one features darker, grimier beats and J Dilla actually rapping on it. His lyrics and flow aren’t bad, but the subject matter and variety of beats (or lack thereof) are relatively underwhelming. Donuts is much better.

SXSW 2007: Breakout Bands That Tore Up Texas. I’m not even sure who put this out...I just snatched it up on eMusic. Really, the collection is relatively underwhelming. I liked the following songs, though:
- “How Do I Let a Good Man Down”, Sharon Jones & the Dap-King
- “How Come You Don’t Hold Me No More”, The Hot Puppies
- “Open Us Up”, Thunderbirds Are Now
- “Murder”, The Big Sleep

Cat Power, Live at Austin City Limits Festival 2006
Gomez, Live at Austin City Limits Festival 2006
Son Volt, Live at Austin City Limits Festival 2006
Rocky Votolato, Live at Austin City Limits Festival 2006
The Hold Steady, Live at Lollapalooza 2006
Lyrics Born, Live at Lollapalooza 2006
Office, Live at Lollapalooza 2006
Sleater-Kinney, Live at Lollapalooza 2006

In April, eMusic also featured partial show downloads from a lot of artists’ sets at these two 2006 festivals. Only Gomez and The Hold Steady had more than 1-3 songs available for download, but it was pretty nice to get to sample all of these bands.

Teenage Kicks Care Package. Of this I figured I should mention my favorite songs:
- “White Collar Boy”, Belle & Sebastian
- “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times”, Bruce Springsteen
- “Flathead”, The Fratellis
- “People Gonna Talk”, James Hunter
- “Girl in the War”, Josh Ritter

The Springsteen performance would be my favorite on the list, but it got a point deduction for having been the song I was listening to when I hit the turkey a couple weeks ago. It’s like when I threw up Double Chex as a kid—I didn’t throw up because of the Double Chex, but Double Chex were always associated with the event, and I never ate them again.

And on that note, so ends probably the best music month I’ve had since I started My Month of Entertainment.